Tag Archives: book reviews

Embassytown

Award-winning science fiction novel about cross-cultural alien communication

Content warning: war, addiction, mental illness

I picked up a copy of this book many Lifeline Bookfairs ago for one very obvious reason: the book’s tinted edges. While possibly originally black, the edges have since faded to a purplish colour. This book has been sitting on my shelf for a very long time and I was inspired to read it when it came up in the category of “7th most read genre in your all-time stats” of the StoryGraph Onboarding Reading Challenge 2022.

Image is of “Embassytown” by China Mieville. The paperback book is upright against a glowing white background. Beside it is a small replica of the Rosetta Stone.

“Embassytown” by China Mieville is a science fiction novel about a young woman called Avice who comes from the eponymous city on a planet at the edge of the known universe. The city serves as a trading post and protected place of diplomacy with the endemic alien species the Ariekei, referred to as the Hosts. After becoming one of the few people born in Embassytown who manage to leave and travel through space, Avice returns to her childhood home with her partner: a passionate linguist who has a keen interest in the Hosts’ unique form of language. Diplomatic relations with the Hosts are conducted by a very select few humans called Ambassadors and while mutual understanding between humans and Ariekei is limited, Embassytown has enjoyed peace, stability and exchange of technologies for some time. That is, however, until a new Ambassador arrives from the Out.

This was an extremely clever and well-constructed novel and it is not a surprise in the slightest that it won a plethora of awards when it was published. Mieville’s premise is highly original and is an incredibly creative exploration of language, communication and diplomacy and how small misunderstandings can have catastrophic effects. Without giving too much away and detracting from the enjoyment of letting the reader’s understanding of the novel unfold, I really enjoyed the worldbuilding such as the expression of names as linguistic fractions, the buildings made from biomatter and the almost indecipherable concept of humans as similies that left me puzzling long after the book was over. Mieville leaves no stone unturned when it comes to exploring the implications of Embassytown’s establishment and each decision thereafter, but manages to do so without ever being boring. In some way, as the reader, we are required to empathise with the difficulties in understanding another culture by initially being faced with an unfathomable society and gradually gaining understanding and context as the book progresses.

I think the only very slight disadvantage to this book is that while Mieville’s pacing is very carefully done so as not to either overwhelm or underwhelm the reader with information, some readers may feel the time it takes to find your fitting a bit too long.

An exceptionally intelligent piece of science fiction, I am really looking forward to reading more of Mieville’s work.

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Filed under Advanced Reading Copies, Book Reviews, Science Fiction, Tinted Edges

The Last White Man

Speculative fiction novel about humanity’s skin changing colour

Content warning: racial violence

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publisher.

Image is of “The Last White Man” by Mohsin Hamid. The eBook cover is dark navy blue with stylised block text in pink and orange, and pale yellow and orange.

“The Last White Man” by Mohsin Hamid is a speculative fiction novel about a young white man called Anders. One morning, Anders wakes to find that his appearance is changed. He is no longer white. Confused and unsure what to do, he reaches out to his friend and lover Oona. As they slowly renegotiate their relationship, other people in society start experiencing changes in their appearance and skin colour until it becomes clear that society will never be the same again.

This was a deceptively simple book that explored race and racism in a novel way: what would happen if people who had lived their lives as white suddenly had to live their lives with a different racial appearance? Hamid uses a small but effective cast of characters to explore some of the subtle and not-so-subtle racist views that people harbour, and how those views must be grappled with in the new society he has created. Some of these issues play out in public displays of violence and conflict, while others play out in the privacy of family homes. Particularly effective were the interactions between Oona and her mother, whose refusal to accept the situation becomes untenable, and Anders and his father, who find a new understanding through this experience. However, I also thought that the otherwise banal setting of the gym where Anders works was where issues of discrimination, exploitation and tolerance were truly borne out.

I think the only thing that I found myself wanting was a bit more of an explanation of why this had happened. With a confidence that I can only admire, Hamid just sets the scene without any attempt to justify – scientifically or otherwise – what is causing people to change. I think I would have liked just the merest whiff of a theory to cling to.

A thought-provoking and original story that encourages the reader to really think about the social impacts of racism.

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Filed under Advanced Reading Copies, Book Reviews, eBooks, Science Fiction

Sharp Objects

Psychological thriller about unsolved murders and a suppressed past

Content warning: self-harm, child abuse

I am still trying to make some headway in my reading challenges for the year, so I have been trying to double up a little bit and combine both the StoryGraph Onboarding Reading Challenge and the Mount TBR Reading Challenge into one. This was apparently a book that fits all of the criteria of my reading profile: a fiction book that is mysterious, dark, tense, fast-paced and 300-499 pages long. Specific! I actually have read a book by this author previously, and I had picked up another of hers from the Lifeline Bookfair some time a go and was keen to see what it was like.

Photo is of “Sharp Objects” by Gillian Flynn. The paperback book is sitting inside a dolls house between a doll’s chair and a doll’s bed with a blue and white floral bedcover. There is a wooden table with a basket and a miniature bread roll inside. The cover is plain black with embossed dark blue text.

“Sharp Objects” by Gillian Flynn is a crime thriller novel about a journalist called Camille who is asked to investigate a disappearance in her home town. Reluctantly, Camille takes on the assignment to cover the story of the second missing girl in a short period of time. When she arrives, she braces herself to see her estranged family while she interviews local police and the victim’s family. However, the longer she is in town, the clearer it becomes that despite the wealth and splendour of her family home, there are some very dark secrets that she thought she left behind. Despite seeming relatively stable if uninspired in her job, as the book progresses we start to see just how much of a toll Camille’s childhood has taken on her. Camille also has the opportunity to get to know her much younger, precocious teenage sister and becomes determined to protect her. The question is: who really needs protecting?

This is a compelling, disturbing story that examines the way trauma can ripple through families regardless of class with devastating effects. Flynn juxtaposes Camille’s mother’s pursuit of beauty and perfection with the emotional and physical scars Camille bears from growing up in that environment. Flynn is a very good at building and maintaining tension, and just like in “Gone Girl”, no matter how challenging the subject matter becomes, it is almost impossible to look away. There is a TV adaptation which is just as good with excellent acting.

I think the only thing about this book is that at times it feels almost provocative for the sake of it, kind of the same way that Camille’s little sister Amma is provocative for the sake of it. There were parts of this book that left me deeply uncomfortable; not just the fallout from terrible crimes, but the ethics of Camille’s own decisions.

An eminently readable yet uneasy story.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Mystery/Thriller

The Night Circus

Historical fantasy novel about a magical circus

It is starting to get rather late in the year, and it occurred to me that I really haven’t been making much of a dent in any of the reading challenges I started at the beginning of the year. So I’m trying to at least tackle the StoryGraph‘s onboarding reading challenge. This book was from the “Popular this Week” when I was adding my books from the challenge, and happily I already had a copy that I had picked up from the Lifeline Bookfair some time ago. The cover is very eye catching, with embossed text, black and white silhouettes and a dash of colour with a red scarf.

Photo is of “The Night Circus” by Erin Morgenstern. The paperback book is standing on black, brown and silver striped fabric next to a book with pages of light, a roughly folded origami tiger and a ticket that says wonderland on it. The cover is black and white with silhouettes of a man, a woman and a circus tent in Victorian clothing. The woman is wearing a floating red scarf.

“The Night Circus” by Erin Morgenstern is a historical fantasy novel set in Victorian England. The book is about a travelling circus known as Le Cirque des Rêves that arrives in towns around the world with no warning. It opens at nightfall, it closes at dawn, and the tents inside contain wonders that its visitors have never seen the like before. However, there is much more to the circus than meets the eye. At its heart is a contest, and the players nominated are Celia, the daughter of an enchanter, and Marco, chosen by a mysterious sorcerer as an apprentice. However, the masters did not reckon on the desires of their players, and the players did not reckon on the community that would grow around the circus.

This is a sweet, intricate novel that leans into the romance, whimsy and transience of circuses. Morgenstern creates layers and layers of magical spaces, exploring the limits of magic and imagination. As the circus grows more and more intricate, we begin to see the toll on Celia and Marco, and those around them. I think my favourite part of the book was Bailey’s story, a young boy who falls in love with the circus, and I felt that Morgenstern handled his arc so delicately and so satisfyingly.

While I liked the writing and I enjoyed the premise, I think I found the overarching plot less compelling. The romance seemed to rely on predestination rather than real chemistry. There were things that I wanted to know more about, like the nature of the man in the grey suit, and there were things that I probably could have taken less of, like the listing of the various experiences in the circus which, while creative and beautifully described, did not necessarily contribute much to the plot.

A captivating book with an appealing premise that was a little light on with story.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Fantasy, Historical Fiction

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency

Mystery novel set in Botswana about love, independence and humanity

Content warning: family violence, child labour

There are a lot of people in my family who enjoy detective and mystery novels, and I have had this book recommended to me several times. In fact, I have had a copy on my bookshelf for so long, I can’t remember where I got it from. This year, I have migrated from Goodreads to StoryGraph to keep track of the books I read. One of the things that StoryGraph offers is its new members is its onboarding challenge with six different challenge prompts to complete in your first year of membership. The second challenge prompt is “Read a book from the Five-Star section of someone from Similar Users”, and this book came up.

Image is of “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” by Alexander McCall Smith. The paperback book is resting between a toy hippopotamus and a pair of black binoculars. The cover has stylised drawings of a crocodile with a watch in its belly, a woman in front of a house with a thatched roof, trees and ayellow and blue artistic border.

“The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” by Alexander McCall Smith is a mystery novel about Precious, a woman who opens a detective agency in Botswana with her inheritance from her father. Despite a slow start and some raised eyebrows from other citizens, Precious eventually receives her first clients. Although she does not have much experience or formal training, her unorthodox style, tenacity, powers of observation and empathy generate results. However, some of the mysteries prove to be challenging and solving them may prove dangerous. Meanwhile, Precious has to contend with advances from eligible men. However, with a history of heartbreak and a business to run, she is reluctant to think about romance again.

This was a fun and surprisingly complex book that tackled a range of social issues. I was particularly impressed at how sensitively McCall Smith handled family violence, and how a strong, independent woman can nevertheless experience violence and become a survivor. It is impossible to read this book and not empathise completely with Precious, and admire her resilience to begin her life again on her own terms. I also enjoyed a lot of the peripheral characters, most especially Mr JLB Matekoni, whose quiet sweetness is a delightful counterpart to Precious’ own style.

Although McCall Smith has clearly spent a lot of time in Botswana, and writes generously about the country, as he is a white man of Scottish heritage I did find myself wondering about the book’s authenticity (having never been to Botswana myself). I have read books by authors from other African nations including Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Liberia, and South Africa but none yet by an author from Botswana. There is a really interesting, detailed article on Medium about some of the barriers to novels being published in Botswana and shared with the rest of the world. McCall Smith’s book has also been adapted into a TV series which was one of the first major film productions in Botswana and has a talented cast that bring this off-beat mystery story to life.

An enjoyable, original story that subverts the detective fiction genre.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Mystery/Thriller

The Hand of the Sun King

Fantasy novel about straddling cultures and collecting powers

This was the next set book for my fantasy book club, which I had to dial into because I caught COVID-19 at the end of June, and then almost as soon as I recovered, I caught a cold.

Image is of “The Hand of the Sun King” by J.T. Greathouse. The eBook cover is of a hand covered in intricate designs. In the background is a mountain, river and bamboo leaves in blue and a partially obscured yellow sun.

“The Hand of the Sun King” by J.T. Greathouse is the first novel in the fantasy series “Pact and Pattern” about a young man who grows up in two cultures. In his father’s household, he is Wen Alder, studying for the Imperial Examinations to obtain a prestigious position serving the Emperor. However, in the dead of night, under the tutelage of his maternal grandmother, he is Foolish Cur studying the old ways. Trying to balance both identities, and unable to keep his own ambition in check, he finds himself propelled into a life of politics and intrigue, of rebellion and conflicted loyalties.

This was a really interesting novel with a complex and well thought out magic system. Greathouse is consistent and detailed with the use of magic and fans of epic fantasy will not be disappointed reading about Foolish Cur’s efforts to master various powers. The novel is paced in a way that the reader gradually learns more about reaches of the Sienese Empire and the effects of colonialism at the same rate that Foolish Cur does, creating a sense of connection with him and an investment in his story. I have mentioned a couple of times on here that I have been enjoying books where the primary motivation is ambition, and this was no exception.

However, I did find the book takes a while to get started. While I appreciate the earlier chapters lay a lot of essential groundwork for the overall premise of the book, it was initially slow to gain momentum.

An enjoyable book (once it got going) with unique and well-considered magic, few boring fantasy tropes and plenty of complexity.

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Filed under Book Reviews, eBooks, Fantasy

Cantik Itu Luka (Beauty is a Wound)

Perhatian: ulasan buku ini akan ditulis dalam Bahasa Indonesia dulu, dan Bahasa Inggris berikut.

Note: this book review will be written first in Bahasa Indonesia, then English afterwards.

Novel sastra tentang seorang perempuan Indo, keluarganya dan jiwa Indonesia melalui sejarah abad 19an

Peringatan pemicu: perkosaan, perbuatan sumbang, kebinatangan, penelantaran anak, penyalahgunahan, perang, penyiksaan, penculikan, pedofilia, pernikaan anak, bunuh diri, keguguran

Walaupun saya tinggal di Indonesia untuk jumlah enam tahun, dan belajar Bahasa Indonesia di SD, SMP, SMU dan Universitas, sebelum ini saya belum pernah membaca buku novel dalam Bahasa Indonesia. Waktu saya masih remaja, bapak saya kasih kepada saya “Harry Potter dan Batu Bertuah”. Saya coba membacanya, tetapi kosa katanya terlalu susah dan saya tidak mebaca lebih dari si kembar Weasley yg ditemu pertama kali oleh Harry Potter di kereta api Hogwarts Express. Saya pernah dengar tentang buku ini dari teman-teman dan penulis lain (khususnya tentang hal realisme magis). Walaupun ada terjemahan Bahasa Inggris, saya punya keinginan untuk membaca buku ini dalam Bahasa Indonesia. Saya sekarang membaca beberapa buku untuk proyek tulisan dan buku ini ada tema relevan. Oleh karena itu, saya pesan edisi Indonesia.

Foto ini menunjukkan “Cantik Itu Luka” ditulis oleh Eka Kurniawan. Bukunya di tengah kotak batik dan tiga buku catatan batik. Sampul buku ada gambar pantai, kota, hutan dan gunung dengan warna merah dan ungu. Ada tokoh hitam yang duduk di perahu, berkelahi di pantai, gadis dan anjing yang berlari.

“Cantik Itu Luka” ditulis oleh Eka Kurniawan adalah sebuah novel tentang seorang perempuan bernama Dewi Ayu yang tinggal lagi sesudah dua puluh satu tahun kematian. Novel ini menjelaskan kenapa Dewi Ayu menutuskan untuk mati sesudah anak perempuan keempatnya lahir. Berbeda dari kakak-kakaknya, anak perempuan ini sangat jelek dan sebelum mati, Dewi Ayu kasih satu hadiah: nama Cantik. Terus, kita membaca tentang hidup Dewi Ayu sebagai orang Indo di kota Halimunda. Halimunda diokupasi oleh tentara Jepang pada Perang Dunia II dan Dewi Ayu terpaksa menjadi pelacur. Sesudah perang, Dewi Ayu menjadi pelacur yang paling terkenal dan dicintai di Halimunda. Dia punya tiga anak dari tiga bapak berbeda dan setiap anak lebih cantik dari pada yang lain. Akan tetapi, masa sesudah perang merupakan kesempatan untuk mendapat kemerdekaan dari Belanda dan membayang negeri baru. Ada tiga cowok yang menjadi sangat berkuasa pada waktu ini: Shodancho, Kamerad Kliwon dan Maman Gendeng. Siapa yang menang perang untuk jiwa Indonesia dan menikah anak perempuan cantik Dewi Ayu?

Novel ini mencerita sejarah Indonesia dari perspektif unik. Dengan pergunaan realisme magis dan tema yang mengerikan, Eka Kurniawan menunjukkan peristiwa yang paling jelek pada periode Perang Dunia II, Revolusi Nasional Indonesia, Penumpasan PKI dan mungkin juga Petrus. Tokoh-tokoh Dewi Ayu, anaknya dan suaminya mengalamkan peristiwa ini dengan berbeda dan jelas bahwa orang perempuan sangat mudah diserang oleh tentara, preman dan bahkan keluarganya. Dewi Ayu sangat praktis, dan tanpa emosi dia menderita dan mengambil tindakan untuk memastikan dia dan anaknya aman. Kadang-kadang ada peristiwa yang tidak bisa dijelaskan seperti orang yang hidup lagi, cium yang berapi, babi yang menjadi manusia dan kutukan yang tidak bisa dipatahkan. Eka Kurniawan menggunakan hal ini untuk membuat emosi Halimunda semakin keras. Gaya menulisnya sering seperti dogeng.

Akan tetapi, buku ini tidak mudah dibaca. Walaupun memang ada banyak kosa kata yang saya belum tahu (sesudah selesai buku ini, saya mengisi tiga buku catatan dengan kosa kata Bahasa Indonesia!), itu bukan masalahnya. Masalanya sebetulnya tema. Ada banyak kekerasan, banyak perkosaan dan banyak hal yang didaftarkan di atas yang sulit dibaca. Walaupun saya paham ada hal yang harus didiskusikan, Eka Kurniawan menulis tentang hal jelek dengan terlalu banyak perincian, dan saya merasa tidak nyaman membaca buku ini.

Walaupun ini buku yang penting dan menarik, itu juga buku sulit dan sering mengerikan.

Literary novel about an Indo woman, her family and the soul of Indonesia through 19th century history

Content warning: rape, incest, bestiality, child abandonment, abuse, war, torture, kidnapping, pedophilia, child marriage, suicide, miscarriage

Although I lived in Indonesia for a total of six years, and studied Indonesian in primary school, high school and university, before now I have never read a book in Bahasa Indonesia. When I was still a teenager, my dad gave me a copy of “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone”. I tried to read it, but the vocabulary was too difficult and I didn’t read further than the Weasley twins met for the first time by Harry Potter on the Hogwarts Express train. I had heard about this book from friends and other writers (especially about the issue of magic realism) Although there is an English translation, I wanted to read it in Bahasa Indonesia. I’m currently reading several books for a writing project and this book has relevant themes. As a result, I ordered an Indonesian edition.

Image is of “Cantik Itu Luka” written by Eka Kurniawan. The book is between a batik box and three batik notebooks. The cover is of a beach, city, forest and mountains in red and purple. There are black figures sitting in a boat, fighting on the beach, a girl and dogs running.

“Beauty is a Wound” by Eka Kurniawan is a novel about a woman called Dewi Ayu who lives again after twenty one years of being dead. This novel explains why Dewi Ayu decided to die after her fourth child was born. Unlike her sisters, this girl is extremely ugly and before dying, Dewi Ayu gives her one gift: the name Beauty. Next, we read about Dewi Ayu’s life as an Indo person in the city of Halimunda. Halimunda was occupied by the Japanese army during World War II and Dewi Ayu is forced to become a sex worker. After the war, Dewi Ayu becomes the most famous and beloved sex worker in Halimunda. She has three children from three different fathers and each child is more beautiful than the next. However, the time after the war is an opportunity to achieve independence from the Netherlands and imagine a new nation. There are three men who become very influential during this time: Shodancho, Kamerad Kliwon and Maman Gendeng. Who will win the war for the soul of Indonesia and marry Dewi Ayu’s beautiful daughters?

This novel depicts Indonesia’s history from a unique perspective. With the use of magic realism and horrifying themes, Kurniawan whos the most ugly events during World War II, the Indonesian National Revolution, the Indonesian Communist Purge and perhaps even the Petrus Killings. The characters of Dewi Ayu, her children and their husbands experiences these events differently and it is clear that women are especially vulnerable to the army, thugs and even their own families. Dewi Ayu is very practical, and without emotion she endures and takes action to ensure that she and her children are safe. Sometimes there are events than cannot be explained like people coming back to life, fiery kisses, pigs who become people and curses that cannot be cursed. Eka Kurniawan uses these elements to make Halimunda’s emotions even more intense. His writing style is often like fables.

However, this book is difficult to read. Although there is plenty of vocabulary that I didn’t know yet (after finishing this book, I had filled three notebooks with Indonesian vocabulary!), that wasn’t the problem. The problem was actually the themes. There is lots of violence, lots of rape and lots of the things listed above that are difficult to read. Although I understand there are things that need to be discussed, Eka Kurniawan writes about gross things with far too much detail, and I felt really uncomfortable reading this book.

Although this is an interesting and important book, it is also a difficult book that is often horrifying.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Historical Fiction, Magic Realism

The Summer I Turned Pretty

Coming of age young adult novel about family and summer at the beach

More running, more audiobooks. I had seen trailers for a TV adaptation of this book that looked alright so I decided to listen to this one next.

Image is of “The Summer I Turned Pretty” by Jenny Han and narrated by Lola Tung. The audiobook cover is a picture of a teenage girl and two teenage boys in swimsuits running along a dune at the beach.

“The Summer I Turned Pretty” by Jenny Han and narrated by Lola Tung is the first novel in a young adult trilogy about a teenager called Belly who is on summer vacation. Every summer, she and her family stay with her mother’s best friend Susannah and her family. The four kids grow up together: Belly, her brother Steven and Susannah’s two sons Conrad and Jeremiah. Belly is the youngest and she has always felt like the little kid running after the boys. Nevertheless, she looks forward However, this summer, Belly is determined that things are going to be different. They are, but different in ways that she never could have expected.

This is standard coming of age novel set in the idyllic fictional beachside town of Cousins Beach. Han uses flashbacks to previous summers to build the groundwork for the dynamics between the two families, and Belly’s long-term crush on the handsome, brooding Conrad. This book is beautifully narrated by Lola Tung who also plays Belly in the TV adaptation, and she has a way of bringing all the sweetness, optimism and drama you could want in a young adult novel.

However, I frequently found this book frustrating. Although I suspect that Han was often trying to make a point, in reality Belly came across as extremely superficial. This summer, Belly’s primary currency is attention and she is constantly observing who is giving her attention, who could be giving her attention and who is getting attention instead of her. Belly is so self-involved, she completely misses what is going on with everyone around her. However somehow, despite multiple instances of incredibly selfish, bad behaviour, things do work out for her.

I have to say, this is one of those rare instances where I prefer the TV adaptation to the book. Through the series, all of the characters are much more filled out, especially Belly’s mother, Jeremiah and Belly’s brother Steven. I also felt that the TV show was a lot more diverse. Unlike the book, Belly is clearly cast as Eurasian with her cultural background mentioned more than once. There are queer characters and the debutante ball, not present in the book, was a great backdrop against which to explore ideas of beauty, tradition and class. I also felt like Belly was much more relatable in the show, and had some keen hobbies and interests outside boys.

A really nicely narrated audiobook, but while I think I’ll stick with the TV series, I don’t think I’ll read any more in the series.

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Filed under Audiobooks, Book Reviews, Young Adult

Runemarks

Fantasy novel inspired by Norse mythology

As I have mentioned several times on this blog, I have been a fan of this author for a long time. I adored the “Chocolat” series and have really enjoyed most of her original folklore and fairy tales. I also realy liked her psychological thrillers. However, this book has been on my shelf for years and years and I have not managed to read it. I really enjoy runes, and I really enjoy fantasy, but for some reason every time I have tried to start this book I just haven’t been able to get into it. It probably isn’t helped by this cover design which, despite the embossing and gold foil, remains, tragically, quite ugly. The illustrator has actually designed some pretty iconic book covers so I am not sure what happened here. Anyway, I am trying really hard to get through my to-read pile as part of the Mount TBR Reading Challenge and when I actually made my own set of runestones recently, I figured it was finally time to tackle this book once and for all.

Image is of “Runemarks” by Joanne Harris. The paperback book is placed next to a hessian drawstring bag with runestones spilling out; each a smooth grey pebble with a white symbol painted on.

“Runemarks” by Joanne Harris is a fantasy novel about a teenage girl called Maddy Smith who has always been an outcast in her small village Malbry. Maddy has a strange birthmark on her hand, a dark orange ruinmark in the shape of a rune. With the mark comes something else: an ability to wield magic. While the townsfolk discourage anything that requires any amount of imagination, when Maddy was small she met a travelling man called One-Eye. Every season, near a large hill with a red horse carved into it, One-Eye teaches her more about runes, lore, and cantrips from old times. When he is away, Maddy practises her magic in small ways such as chasing away goblins. However, when One-Eye finally returns, he has a special request: to open a way beneath Red Horse Hill and retrieve something that will change the world.

This book draws heavily on Norse mythology, especially the gods and realms that make up the Nine Worlds. While drawing on similar motifs and themes to many of her other stories, in this one, Harris explores a different style of writing. This book is action-packed with a focus on battles for overt power and the fate of the world rather than the subtler themes often touched on in her other work. I think my favourite parts of the book were actually the Examiners, their distorted morality and struggles for control over themselves and each other. Harris explores how fanaticism can breed intolerance and hate, echoing similar messages in some of her other work. Of all the characters in the book, I think perhaps my favourite was Ethelberta who underwent the most character development and was perhaps the most relatable character in the book.

However, in finally finishing this book I was reminded why I had so much trouble with it the other times I have read it. I’m not sure if I am just not very inspired by Norse mythology or if there just wasn’t the same kind of balance between the wonder of magic and horror or danger that you find in some other fantasy novels. Maddie’s time in the oppressive, stale tunnels of Red Horse Hill just felt relentless, and each setting after the next was more and more grim. I appreciate it is a dark story, but there was no respite; no Rivendell-equivalent where we could catch our breath, get to know the characters and understand what was to come next. I think ultimately Maddie’s world didn’t really seem like one that deserved to be saved. Her town was awful, the tunnels were awful, the Examiners and whatever was in the Outlands was awful, the realms they visited were awful and all the people and gods: also pretty awful. I didn’t come away from this book feeling inspired by humanity, I came away feeling like Maddie left a bad place for several that were arguably worse.

While the use of runes to cast spells was a fun way to conceive magic, so much time was spent explaining how the magic was limited that when it came down to it, it did seem quite implausible that the Good Guys (difficult at any time to ascertain due to constantly shifting alliances and morally grey and ambivalent gods) would even be strong enough to fight the final battle. I get that the gods are meant to be fickle and fallible, but I just wasn’t cheering for any of them.

Ultimately not my style of fantasy and I think perhaps Norse mythology is not for me.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Fantasy, Young Adult

The Orchard

Fictional podcast about a death at a mysterious girl’s school

Content warning: bullying, suicide

The time had come to choose my next running audiobook. I was flicking through the options and came across this: a fictional podcast. I really enjoy fictional podcasts and I’ve listened to more over the years than I have reviewed on this blog because I’m never quite sure if they count as books. I actually find fictional podcasts (or radio plays) easier to listen to than audiobooks: I think the extra sound editing and production makes the story more immersive, and the voice actors make the characters more distinct. Anyway, maybe I should review more fictional podcasts but in the meantime, let’s start with this one.

Image is of the “The Orchard” by Mike Jones and Mike Cowap. The audiobook cover has the text ‘Starring Eric Bana’ with a photograph of Eric Bana in a collared shirt with silhouetted images of girls running behind trees in blue light in the background.

“The Orchard” by Mike Jones and Mike Cowap is a fictional podcast about a detective and single dad called Adam Durwood who is about to resign from the force. His last case is to investigate the unusual death of a teenage boy by the orchard of an exclusive all girls’ school. His superiors are eager to write it off as a suicide but Detective Durwood is not convinced. He questions students and staff but their responses are confounding; hinting at the school’s secret history. As impartial as Detective Durwood thinks he is, something about the case is pulling him in and while he is distracted, something is pulling his daughter away from him.

This was a really eerie, well-scripted story with exceptional voice acting. There was a surprisingly stellar cast of characters, with Eric Bana as Adam Durwood, Magda Szubanski as Barbara and Gary Sweet as DI Simes. Bana in particular was a standout and captured the nuance of dogged detective and struggling dad perfectly. Each episode was only about 20 minutes or so, which was a pretty ideal length for a short run. There was quite a sinister vibe and I found this podcast really quite creepy to listen to when I was running by myself at night after work. The story covered a range of issues, and I thought one of the most compelling elements was the impact something like a catastrophic car crash can have on a family, the way we process grief and what you would do to get your family back.

As enjoyable as the podcast was, the closer I got to the ending the less convinced I was with the plot direction. I thought that there had been some really strong groundwork around the school, secret societies and the way alumni connections can be used to propel students towards success. However, the final reveal in the story took a completely different path that I found less interesting and much less convincing.

An enjoyable story with a great cast that didn’t quite land the ending.

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